Courage, Not Comfort! Diving in to Camp Fund-Raising

Posie Taylor
November 2017
camper and staff flexing their muscles

This article is the first in a two-part series on fund-raising, and to learn even more about this subject, be sure to attend Ann Sheets and Posie Taylor’s session, The Development Doctors Are In, at the 2018 ACA National Conference in Orlando, Florida.

“I  love my organization and would do anything to support it, but I am just not comfortable asking for money.” Does that sound familiar? Have you perhaps even said it yourself? Well, so have I — before I learned that, done well, asking for funding for an organization you love and a cause to which you are deeply committed is the most rewarding job there is. No, don’t stop reading. Rather, let’s explore the process in a two-part series right here in Camping Magazine, and then gather your courage and — just like we tell campers as they stand nervously on the end of the diving board — jump right in!

If you wait to be comfortable asking for money, you will be older than I am when you get around to it. Everyone starts out a bit uncomfortable and does it anyway. I have been fund-raising for causes I am passionate about for over 40 years and still lose sleep before a meeting with a prospective donor. That’s where you need to remember that small, slightly shaky, teeth-chattering camper making that leap despite her fear. If she can go for it, so can you. So let’s get our ducks in a row and start with preparation — both organizational and personal — which will be the core of the discussion here. The next article will talk specifically about the dreaded “ask,” and share the actual words to use when you go for it.

Systems

Get your systems and tracking in order. There are multitudes of systems designed to help with fund-raising. Some are specifically and only fund-raising while others can connect with registration or billing or whatever. Get good recommendations from friends in organizations of a similar size to yours. Prices are coming down, so be careful to think strategically about what information you want to track. Many organizations, including camps, find it essential to be able to build profiles for donors that include family relationships — i.e., if the prospect’s great uncle was a counselor at camp eons ago — or interests, like a deep love of canoeing, or a special achievement. All such notes can be invaluable in connecting with a prospect and deepening a relationship. So, when you are contemplating a purchase of a system, think 20 years out and about what information will be essential going forward. Think also about how you access that information: Buried data is useless data, unless you can find it when you need it.

Many of you may be already using systems that work well. Hooray! Others may be feeling crippled by programs that are inadequate. Do consult specialists when thinking through a change of systems. Keeping what is useful from your old system is important if it includes valuable information that you may need going forward. So no throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water in a fit of frustration.

Donor Groupings

Now that you have got a good system for data collection and you have carefully thought through what data to collect, you will need to make sure your system for communicating with prospective donors is robust and clear. In most cases, camps have several categories of prospects, and the pool of prospects can be sliced in a variety of ways. Your system should allow you to pull names and make groupings with different characteristics. Current camp parents are one logical group, and within that group might be past donors and those who have never given before. Do not be afraid to ask current families to support your programs — after all, they are seeing exactly how wonderful those programs are in helping kids become their best selves. I have heard camp directors say something about families paying enough in tuition already, but if you are a nonprofit camp or have a campership program, their children are benefiting every day from knowing campers from many economic backgrounds.

In addition to current parents, current and past counselors can be among your most enthusiastic supporters. Past campers who have grown up and remember their camp years fondly are also good candidates, along with grandparents, neighbors, friends, and even past parents who continue to see the benefits of camp daily in the lives of their growing (or grown) children. In many cases, camps that serve the underserved have developed long lists of donors who believe deeply in their mission and commit to helping. Business owners and vendors can also be supporters, with gifts in kind or major discounts.

Your job now is to divide these prospects into sensible groups and figure out the best ways to be in touch. A development calendar is often useful as you plan touch points over the year. Treating all prospects with respect is essential, but equally important is to spend your maximum effort where the returns will be the greatest. Keeping past donors giving is always easier than finding new ones, so think through making sure they stay connected. Remember that having your only touchpoint be an ask for money is not likely to yield the best results. Folks love to hear your news and to know their gifts are working to make dreams come true.

Development Calendar

Plan a calendar at least a year out. Do you want to keep major donors in a close loop with notes from your executive director or camp director once a month? Would sending a few pictures after camp to past campers and counselors be a wise strategy? Do you want to invite folks to give with a broad mail outreach twice a year in March and November, for example, and schedule in-person conversations with some big prospects as well? Can you use the phone effectively, remembering that face-to-face meetings have far and away the best results?

Plan it out, assign responsibilities, and go for it. Follow up to make sure everyone is on track and on time. That is your yearly development calendar, designed with the right number of touchpoints for each group of donors — not overwhelming, not too infrequent, or only in touch with requests to fork over gifts, but feeling just right.

With a system for tracking donors with all the details you have determined you need and a yearly development calendar with assignments for everything on it in place, the gifts will begin to roll in. What happens next?

Gratitude in Action

Every gift, no matter its size, deserves a thoughtful thank-you, mailed within a week. Depending on the size of the gift or the closeness or potential of the donor, a personal note from the executive director or a favorite senior staff member might be appropriate. It is also wonderful to receive another thank-you at an unexpected time. For example, if someone gives you a gift for camperships in January, a note — or, even better, a picture — during the summer will warm a donor’s heart for sure. It could be just a quick picture with a handwritten note that says, “We are all having a blast and it wouldn’t be happening without your generous support. Thank you!” This sentiment is true and will be appreciated.

Keeping Track

At the same time, tracking gifts appropriately is critical to good donor stewardship. When a gift comes in for a particular effort, your records — and your thank-you — should be clear that you are using that money to support the donor’s wishes. Keeping good records will not only help if the IRS ever comes knocking, but will also make your next encounter with your donor, whether to thank them in person or to ask for another gift, much easier and more personal. And remember, it is always easier to keep a donor in the fold than to find and cultivate a new one. Just like with camper recruitment, right? Keeping them coming back is always the best strategy. That doesn’t mean you don’t reach out to new families, but having a base of happy families in close contact is definitely the best strategy.

The Unexpected Gift

What do you do when a gift comes in earmarked for something for which you haven’t asked? The situation can feel awkward, but you and the donor have options.

Figure out if you really do want to use the gift for the purpose the donor supported. Ask yourself some questions:

  • Does the gift fit into your strategic plan and vision?
  • Does it entail ongoing costs beyond the initial gift?
  • Are you prepared to and interested in covering any additional costs?

Decide with a hard look whether your organization’s vision is advanced by the gift. If yes, thank the donor, book the gift correctly, and use the funds appropriately.

If the gift is truly offtrack, an immediate call to the donor by a skilled member of your leadership staff is probably in order. A gracious thank-you comes first, followed by an explanation that your current plans do not include moving in this direction. Then you can suggest an alternative that seems appropriate for the gift, ask the donor’s opinion, and, if nothing else suits, offer to return the gift. Usually, donors are grateful when respectful explanations are given and happily support something that you both agree would be appropriate. I once helped a donor move from wanting to give us a sculpture for our boys’ camp to building us an art building at ten times the cost. Seeing him celebrating proudly at the building’s dedication is a vivid and happy memory for both of us, even today.

You Did It!

You now have a great database filled with useful information about your donors and a good calendar of appropriate touch points for different groups of donors; you have assigned folks to do the work and arranged to make sure things are moving along well; you are tracking gifts carefully and thanking people profusely. Congratulations, you have a system — one that will work with minor tweaks for your annual fund, a capital campaign, or any special fund-raising campaign you need to plan.

With the system in place, you are now ready for that moment you have been putting off — the dreaded ask — the actual meeting with your donor to invite him or her to support your efforts. You have built the diving board sturdy and safe. Now is the time to prepare to take the plunge. Now is the time for courage, like that shivering, blue-lipped camper at the end of the board. You may not think so, and you probably feel uncomfortable, but, in the next issue, we will jump in together and feel proud. Come on in, the water’s fine!

 Building the Diving Board in Six Steps

  1. Find expert advice as you get your system up and running.
  2. Think really carefully about what information you want to collect about your donors. It is almost impossible to go back and start again.
  3. Put yourself in the donor’s shoes. How often do you want to hear from an organization? It probably depends on how much you love it, right?
  4. The point is to bring your donors closer and closer, so they feel more engaged and connected. Maximum giving usually comes not right away, but after careful, personal, and caring stewardship.
  5. It never works to “hit ’em up” for a gift. Well, perhaps in the short run, but never over a lifetime; it’s those long-term, dedicated donors that sustain organizations.
  6. After you have thanked someone for a gift, figure out a personal way to thank them again — and perhaps again.

Starting as a homesick camper in 1954, Posie Taylor grew up at The Aloha Camps in Fairlee, Vermont. After almost 20 years as director of Aloha’s camp for younger girls and director of development, she became executive director of The Aloha Foundation in 1998, serving in that role until 2005 and then returning as interim executive director from 2013 to 2014. Active in ACA since 1977, Posie has filled many roles over the years, including multiple stints on the ACA National Board and on the board of ACA, New England. In “retirement,” she is a consultant to camps around the country, particularly in the areas of board development and fund-raising, and an enthusiastic volunteer for her favorite causes. She currently serves as board chair of three local organizations, but her best role is being “Grammie” to her beloved granddaughter, Kate.

Photo courtesy of Camp John Marc, Dallas, Texas.

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